More Longtime Couples in France Prefer L'Amour Without Marriage

Sandrine Folet and Lucas Titouh, in their Paris apartment with children Lola and Tom, are part of a growing trend away from marriage.
Sandrine Folet and Lucas Titouh, in their Paris apartment with children Lola and Tom, are part of a growing trend away from marriage. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

PARIS -- Sandrine Folet and Lucas Titouh have two children, a stylish Paris apartment and a 15-year-old partnership.

They have no intention of getting married.

"We don't feel the need to get married," said Folet, 36, who has known Titouh, 40, since she was a teenager. "I don't know many people in our age group who are married."

In France, the country that evokes more images of romance than perhaps any other, marriage has increasingly fallen out of favor. Growing numbers of couples are choosing to raise children, buy homes and build family lives without religious or civil approval of their partnerships. In the past generation, the French marriage rate has plunged more than 30 percent, even as population and birthrates have been rising.

"Marriage doesn't have the same importance as it used to," said France Prioux, who directs research on changing social trends for France's National Institute of Demographic Studies. "It will never become as frequent as it once was."

Marriage is in decline across much of northern Europe, from Scandinavia to France, a pattern some sociologists describe as a "soft revolution" in European society -- a generational shift away from Old World traditions and institutions toward a greater emphasis on personal independence.

But French couples are abandoning the formality of marriage faster than most of their European neighbors and far more rapidly than their American counterparts: French marriage rates are 45 percent below U.S. figures. In 2004, the most recent year for which figures are available, the marriage rate in France was 4.3 per 1,000 people, compared with 5.1 in the United Kingdom and 7.8 in the United States. The only European countries with rates lower than France's were Belgium, at 4.1, and Slovenia, with 3.3.

The trend in France is driven by a convergence of social transitions in both the demographic and cultural landscapes, including this generation's nearly universal estrangement from religion, especially the Catholic Church; massive migration to urban areas, where young adults are more independent from their families; and a society that has become not only tolerant but supportive of personal choice in lifestyles.

The increase in out-of-wedlock birthrates is even more dramatic: Last year, 59 percent of all first-born French children were born to unwed parents, most by choice, not chance. The numbers were not driven by single mothers, teenage mothers or poor mothers, but by couples from all social and economic backgrounds who chose parenthood without marriage vows.

France's two most high-profile female politicians live with well-known partners they have not married. Ségolène Royal, who last week won the Socialist Party nomination for president in next year's election, and Francois Hollande, the party's leader, have had four children during their 25 years of cohabitation. French Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, another possible presidential contender, has spent nearly 22 unmarried years living with Patrick Ollier, a member of the National Assembly.

"We never had time to get married," Alliot-Marie said in a recent interview. Royal has expressed distaste for the notion, once calling marriage a "bourgeois institution."

"Getting married 30 years ago was part of a tradition," said Maiten de Cazanove, who trains counselors for the Catholic Church's French Centers for Marriage Preparation, an organization engaged in public outreach to lure more couples to the altar. "People got married because their parents were married and couldn't imagine their children not getting married, or having children outside of marriage. . . . Nowadays, people who don't want to get married don't do it to rebel, or to reject religion; they do so because to them, loving someone doesn't have anything to do with society. It's personal."

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